In three mighty blows, Ben Stokes turned a humdrum day into ecstasy. The first, with which he went from 91 to 97, was caught by Faf du Plessis at deep midwicket but such was its force that the South Africa captain was knocked to the floor and into contact with the boundary rope. The crowd roared its approval at this misfortune and then, rather sadistically, upped the volume as umpire Aleem Dar raised his arms to the sky.
The second was a strike of memorable force and, in more ways than one, of majestic timing for it took Stokes past the hundred mark and moved the full house to stand and cheer as one in a union of awe and admiration. The third, at once a thing of both beauty and brutality, went hard and flat into the folk seated fifteen rows back at deep midwicket. These shots were played from balls bowled mainly wide of off-stump by the canny left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj. They needed fetching, as the pros like to say, and were fetched all right. The force was with Stokes who, at moments like these, becomes irresistible.
One hundred Tests and The Oval rarely disappoints. Set into the red brick homes, tenements and schools of south London, the home of Surrey cricket is an urban sprawl of its own. Plans are afoot for hedonistic redevelopment as this 27,000 seater space is to be enlarged and improved for 8-15,000 more consumers of a game that continues to delight and surprise, whatever the scaremongers insist about its future. For a long while the gasometer was its most famous feature but once the gas was let out of it and the vast OCS stand added some architectural style in its place, the herculaean deeds, warm memories and relevant history grabbed the headlines.
Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton of course, Bradman too; Ponsford, Gavaskar and Amla; the "Demon" Spofforth back in 1882 and the demon Devon Malcolm in 1994. "Dolly" and "Deadly" in 1968, when the crowd helped dry the square to allow Derek Underwood his opportunity before the South African government chose to deny Basil D'Oliviera his; Viv and Mikey in 1976, a pair of peformances surely never bettered, though Murali runs Mikey close; Eric Hollies' unlikely ball to the Don that cost a perfect career 100; Botham's return from his enforced sabbatical and that record-breaking wicket; "Tugga" and "Warney"; Compton's winning runs in '53 and KP's extraordinary counterattack in'05. Memories are made of these, and of goodbyes that move the heart - of Ambrose and Walsh, Warne and McGrath and Atherton to mention a few.
If Lord's is the cathedral then The Oval is lower church, more raw and arguably more real for its wider brief and myriad customer. It staged the first Test in England in 1880 and the first FA Cup final too, in 1872. It has been a home for cricket, football, rugby even and almost for prisoners of war though, as things were to turn out, the enemy never made it.
"Ben Stokes has added his name to the list of the Oval grandees. Who is to say Toby Roland-Jones is not about to do the same?"
Thus, the atmosphere, which was unique then, remains so now and, in between, had often gone of the chart. When West Indies played here in the 1970s and '80s, the ground felt like the Caribbean in a warm coat so shrill were the whistles, so clear the steel drums and so resonant the sound of the conch shell. Every match was a party and each thunderous showing during the Lloyd/Richards era gave relief to the oppressed and joy to those who knew about cricket's place in the order of things back home. The Oval crowds have always integrated: followers of touring sides mixing readily with homebirds to sell it out every summer. When the Australians finally came to terms with defeat in 2005, "Waltzing Matilda" broke out as enthusiastically as "Jerusalem" and when Richie Benaud took his final walk across the Oval turf, supporters of both teams showed an equal measure of love and appreciation.
These contrasts of sight and sound were never more evident than today. There was pure and nervous silence while Alastair Cook reviewed his lbw decision and monumental noise as Stokes rained sixes upon the Westminster Terrace. When he reached his hundred and threw his arms aloft in celebration, so the people followed his lead, thrilled at the extravagance of it all.
More was to come, the first Toby, and with a double-barrelled surname for goodness sake, who ripped the heart out of the South African top order in a debut burst to beat most others here, or there or anywhere for that matter. Amongst his victims was Hashim Amla - he of the triple-hundred five years ago - and the whoopin' and hollerin' at the fall of that wicket ranked alongside any of the Stokes moments earlier in the day.
Truly, sportsmen make a kind of magic and the venues at which they perform their tricks have a flavour all their own. Across the length and breadth of England can be found the parochial and yet still patriotic Headingley; an often triumphalist Old Trafford; an always enthusiastic Trent Bridge; a forever nationalistic Edgbaston; a liberal, metropolitan Oval and, of course, the most respectful Lord's, or "Mecca" as Geoffrey Boycott calls it. Each place means something to someone and each curtain call there means something unforgettable to those who tread its pastures in search of glory. Ben Stokes has added his name to the list of the Oval grandees. Who is to say a fellow called Roland-Jones is not about to do the same?